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Culture 24/04/2019

Tech is fragmenting society - and it will get a lot worse before it gets better

Image: Pixabay

Media has diversified in recent decades. In the wake of changes to our consumption of information, identity politics have exploded. These things are linked and they are set to get worse before they ever get better; if they ever get better. A week spent listening to the curated zeitgeist at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas suggests that hyper-personalisation is an irresistible lure for business leaders straddling the nexus of media, marketing and technology. The likely hyper-fragmentation of our politics that will follow remains somebody else’s concern in newsrooms and boardrooms.

After 18 months of talking to experts in technology, media and politics as part of my podcast, Government Vs The Robots, and concluding every interview with a search for optimism, I’m struggling to find much.

Here in the UK we are about to set out on a contentious set of European elections with electoral laws described as “unfit for purpose” by the Chair of one House of Commons Select Committee. Despite the publication of a government white paper into online harms and subsequent looming regulation of gargantuan technology companies, there still doesn’t appear to be sufficient focus on how digital advertising and artificial intelligence have moved the arena of modern political campaigning from the doorstep to the smartphone. By the time we’ve figured out how to update electoral laws to cover campaigning on Facebook, the worst damage will be being done on WhatsApp.

In the broader media ecosystem the ongoing boom in podcasting, YouTubing and self-broadcasting are the visible tip of a dangerous iceberg, and we are currently proceeding full steam ahead into it.

Algorithms bolster the ability of users to drive ever increasing personalisation in their newsfeeds, and private messaging services further limit the scope of regulators to clamp down on disinformation. At the same time the savviest communicators in politics have woken up to the fact that truth, at the best of times a disputable notion in the subjective world of politics, is raging against the dying of the light - then they can spread their own worldview uncontested in the gloom.

A saunter through the Virtual Reality library which took over a good chunk of Austin’s enormous Marriott hotel at SXSW was enough to demonstrate that next generation augmented and virtual reality technology will soon start to blur the boundaries between the real and the artificial, to a point where we struggle to define the difference.

Pop next door to one of several panel events on the future of news and you found senior figures from established news outfits like Reuters and the Washington Post talking about how, while it’s currently fairly easy to identify a deepfake video (check the audio sync, look out for jerky movements and listen carefully to difficult sounds like ‘th’ and ‘ed’), it probably won’t be for much longer.  

The potential for technologies like these to radically impact politics was wrapped up in a fitting denouement to my week at SXSW, delivered by Al Byrne from the Irish agency Rothco. The agency was responsible for breathing new life into John F Kennedy via a recent partnership with The Times.

His thought provoking session asked whether JFK could run for President again in 2020. Such a bid could be informed by AI powered market research, holographic technology and sophisticated sentiment tracking, as well as individually created adverts targeting voters on social media.

So technology is going to further distort notions of truth and reality, and at the same time politicians are going to continue to be rewarded for stirring divisive emotions via a range of direct communications. The state will be endlessly playing catch-up to try to control this, if it even decides it wants to control it.

Since I returned from SXSW I’ve been dwelling on the notion that further media fragmentation will lead to further political fragmentation. I mentioned it to a very senior advertising executive who has witnessed great cultural changes during a distinguished career and he scoffed. The basis of his counter-argument was that every now and again things start to fragment, before a great unifying idea comes along and people come back together again. It’s a comforting thought but in the UK right now the most unifying ideas seem to staying in or leaving the EU, or nationalism or marxist socialism.

For now though, in a world where gammon and snowflakes fail to understand each other, brexiteers and remoaners compete to vilify to each other and new identities jostle for recognition, we should all be mindful of the need to find common ground at a time when dividing chasms grow ever wider.

Jonathan Tanner is the host of the Government vs The Robots podcast

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